The remaining energy bills: energy choice, carbon trading, the SCC, and coal. Plus, will Dominion be forced to give up its ill-gotten gains?

This is the last of my three-part review of energy legislation introduced in Virginia’s 2018 session. The first post covered solar bills; the second focused on energy efficiency, storage, and electric vehicles. I’m concluding with bills from the miscellaneous file–some of which, however, will likely be among the most significant energy bills addressed this year.

Energy Choice

Readers will recall the ruckus at the SCC that ensued when third-party electricity provider Direct Energy proposed to offer renewable energy to current Dominion customers. The SCC confirmed last spring that this is allowed under the Virginia Code, but only until Dominion wins approval for its own renewable energy tariff. Dominion immediately filed a tariff, though eight months later, the SCC has yet to rule on it. Irked by the delay, Dominion has gotten two of its best friends to introduce bills forcing the SCC to act faster when Dominion wants something. The bills are SB 285 (Saslaw) and HB 1228 (Hugo).

Meanwhile, Senator Sutterlein has introduced SB 837, allowing customers of Dominion and APCo to purchase electricity generated 100% from renewable energy from any supplier licensed to do business in the state, and eliminating the condition that permits such purchases only if the utility itself does not offer a tariff for 100 percent renewable energy. This would resolve Direct Energy’s conundrum, since the approval of a similar Dominion tariff would not nullify an existing—or future—renewable energy offering from Direct Energy or anyone else. HB 1528 (Mullin) is the companion bill in the House.

Carbon trading

Last May, Governor McAuliffe announced Executive Directive 11, which started the process for drafting regulations that would have Virginia participate in a carbon emissions trading program known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). Electric utilities would be allotted, or would buy, carbon emission allowances. This makes non-carbon-emitting sources and energy efficiency more attractive to utilities than fossil fuel generation. Draft regulations were released in late December, and a comment period runs until April 9, 2018. Governor Northam has pledged to follow through on the program.

As part of this effort, the Administration’s bills include SB 696 (Lewis) and HB 1273 (Bulova), which provide for the state to join RGGI. The legislation is not necessary for Virginia to trade with RGGI, but there is an advantage to the state in doing so: RGGI member states auction off carbon allowances to polluters, rather than giving them away. That provides a significant source of income to the state that can be used to support clean energy, climate adaptation, or other priorities. Accordingly, HB 1273 spells out how the auction revenues would be spent. Energy efficiency and renewable energy would both get pieces of the pie.

Republican critics have counter-attacked. HB 1270 (Poindexter) would prohibit Virginia from joining RGGI or implementing carbon rules. Delegate Yancey, whose lucky win following a tied election barely returned him to office, is affirming his Tea Party credentials with HB 1082, prohibiting state agencies from adopting any rules more stringent than what is required by federal law. And then there is HB 549 (Freitas), which tries to hobble the General Assembly itself, prohibiting any future laws that would direct state agencies to adopt regulations that “are likely to have a significant economic impact” (defined as anything over $500!) unless they pass the bill twice to prove they really, truly mean it.

None of these bills pose a real threat to the Administration’s carbon initiative; the Governor will veto any that pass. A more serious challenge takes the form of a constitutional amendment, because it would not be subject to the Governor’s veto. Last year, Republicans pushed through a bill approving a constitutional amendment that would allow the General Assembly (read: the Republican majority) to nullify any existing regulations enacted by any Virginia state agency on any topic at any time. Since constitutional amendments have to be passed two years in a row before going to the voters for ratification, the same language (which Senator Vogel has reintroduced via SB 826 and SJ69) has to pass again this year.

Bills aimed at the SCC

Our investor-owned utilities are not the only barrier to cleaner energy in Virginia; often the SCC does us no favors either. Some of the energy efficiency bills discussed in my last post would force the SCC to evaluate utility efficiency programs differently. Two other bills are also worth noting:

HB 33 (Kory) repeals a provision prohibiting the SCC from imposing environmental conditions that go beyond what is in a permit, and expressly permits (though it does not require) the SCC to consider environmental effects, including carbon impacts, when evaluating new generating sources.

HB 975 (Guzman) would prohibit the SCC from approving new fossil fuel generating plants unless at least 20% of the generating capacity approved that year uses renewable energy. Too bad we didn’t have a rule like this a few years ago, when Dominion sought (and got) approval for the last of its giant combined-cycle gas plants. Today, however, this could be moot. No utility has proposed a new fossil fuel plant other than relatively small gas combustion turbines (peaker plants), which could meet the 20% rule when paired with even the modest levels of solar generation Dominion contemplates.

Coal subsidies

You think you killed the zombie, but it pops right back up. HB 665 (Kilgore) and SB 378 (Chafin) would reinstate the expired tax subsidies for the mining companies who despoil Virginia mountains. There is little risk of this corporate welfare becoming law again, because the governor would surely veto the legislation if it passes. The more interesting question is whether it gets through this year’s more closely divided General Assembly.

Undoing the Dominion handouts

The boondoggle Dominion won in 2015—the now infamous SB 1349, which allowed the utility to keep overearnings and avoid SCC rate reviews until into the next decade—has been in the news a lot lately. Under pressure from legislators and the media, Dominion has agreed to revisit the so-called “rate freeze.” That doesn’t mean it wants to give the money back. We hear the company is working on a deal with House and Senate leaders that lets it spend its ill-gotten gains on things it wants to do anyway: some for renewables, some for grid upgrades, anything but refunds.

So far, Dominion’s friends in the Senate have its back. Under the guidance of Frank Wagner, the original SB 1349 patron, and Dick Saslaw, Dominion’s top ally among the Democrats, the Commerce and Labor Committee today killed Chap Petersen’s SB 9, which would have restored the SCC’s ability to review utility spending and order refunds. The House companion bill, HB 96 (Rasoul) has not yet been taken up. Currently, no other bills are on file addressing the overearnings, but both Saslaw and Republican Tommy Norment have promised they have excellent bills in the works.

UPDATE January 23: On the last day to file legislation, Terry Kilgore presented us with the first of the new utility boondoggle bills. HB 1558 calls for a small portion of the overcharges to be rebated to customers, after which overcharging would go back to being the normal course of business. Wagner, Saslaw and Newman filed their own bills, supposedly on January 19, though these evaded posting on the website until today. I hear they are similar but haven’t ha time to read them. Petersen, meanwhile, played a new card, introducing SB 955, which would empower the SCC to review the overearnings and order refunds as appropriate.

 

McAuliffe, on his way out, makes his bold move on climate–and drives Republicans crazy

Governor Terry McAuliffe signs an Executive Directive on climate.

Terry McAuliffe dangled climate bait in front of Virginia Republicans, and they swallowed it hook, line and sinker.

Three weeks ago Governor McAuliffe announced he was directing the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to develop a rule capping greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. His Executive Directive gives DEQ until the end of December to put out a draft rule for public comment—meaning McAuliffe will be out of office before any rule takes effect, and its fate really lies with the winner of November’s gubernatorial election.

Democratic contenders Ralph Northam and Tom Perriello praised the initiative, but Republicans were too much in campaign mode to react rationally. Instead they went ballistic, ensuring that climate change will be an election issue in Virginia for the first time. Ed Gillespie, the frontrunner in the Republican primary, denounced the directive as “job killing and cost-increasing,” and used the opportunity to make common cause with coal companies. Corey Stewart called global warming “obviously a hoax” and promised to restore the taxpayer subsidies Virginia once lavished on the coal barons. Frank Wagner used his status as a state senator to convene a committee hearing so he could inveigh against McAuliffe’s directive.

Last week President Trump further elevated climate as an issue when he announced he was pulling the U.S. out of the international climate accord. ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips criticized the move, but the Republican Party of Virginia celebrated it with a “Pittsburgh, not Paris” rally at the White House.

Only Virginia and New Jersey will elect governors in 2017, so our election is widely regarded as a bellwether for the 2018 federal electons. With almost 60% of Americans backing the Paris accord, Trump’s pullout—and the choice of Virginia Republicans to embrace an unpopular president over a divisive decision—makes McAuliffe’s directive look like a winning move for Democrats.

It is long past time for climate to become an important issue in national discourse. On the other hand, it’s painful to see it used as a political cudgel in partisan fights, and even worse to see Republicans double down on denying that a threat exists or that we have the tools to address it. Climate change is not something that happens only to one party’s target voter demographic. God sendeth the rain on the just and on the unjust. We are all in this together.

To be fair, there are Republicans who take climate change seriously and believe we need to address it. Unfortunately, the ones who hold elected office rarely have the courage to say it. Their party does not have their backs.

Political clickbait or not, the climate rule McAuliffe envisions is conceptually simple and economically efficient. It would have DEQ set greenhouse gas emissions limits from power plants pegged to those of the eleven states that currently regulate emissions, with a goal of enabling our utilities to trade emissions allowances with utilities in other states.

In effect, Virginia utilities would trade with those of the northeastern states that are members of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), but Virginia would not actually join RGGI. That’s too bad; joining RGGI would let the state auction emissions allowances instead of giving them away, bringing in money for climate adaptation and clean energy programs. According to Deputy Natural Resources Director Angela Navarro, however, joining RGGI would require passage of legislation. Republicans in the General Assembly have blocked such legislation for the past three years in a row.

Auction revenue would be welcome, but the carbon reduction plan still makes sense. Navarro told me the RGGI states are currently achieving reductions of 2.5% year over year and driving clean energy investments. Using this approach would enable Virginia to achieve the 30% by 2030 reductions that the environmental community has been urging. It would also put Virginia in a stronger position when the U.S. eventually adopts nationwide carbon limits. Indeed, McAuliffe’s plan looks better than the Clean Power Plan the Trump administration is trying to scuttle, which applies only to existing power plants and might allow unlimited construction of new fracked gas plants.

A market-friendly cap-and-trade approach is the kind of solution that would appeal to Republicans, if they cared to get into the solution business. Unfortunately, Senator Wagner’s response is likely to be typical of what we can expect from Virginia’s Republican General Assembly when it reconvenes in January 2018. The ink was barely dry on McAuliffe’s directive when Wagner called a meeting of the Joint Commission on Administrative Rules to give himself a pre-primary platform to attack the climate initiative.

Wagner expected a member of the Administration to attend the meeting so he’d have someone to lecture—but wouldn’t you know, it turned out that every single Administration official with any connection to the issue was busy that day. That did not stop Wagner and his fellow Republicans from attacking McAuliffe’s directive as expensive and potentially unconstitutional. (Attorney General Mark Herring had released an opinion the previous week supporting its constitutionality.)

Democrats on the committee were unimpressed with Wagner’s grandstanding, and complained of being summoned to review a rule that hadn’t even been drafted yet. Even more to the point was the testimony from Virginia residents who came to speak in favor of climate action, not as a matter not of politics, but of public health. Dr. Janet Eddy of Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action and Dr. Matthew Burke of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health described how a warming climate means more asthma and heat stroke, longer allergy seasons, and the northward spread of malaria and other infectious diseases.

These are serious problems, and they deserve serious attention. The Republican Party line that global warming isn’t happening, it isn’t our fault, and we can’t afford to stop has all the coherence of the thief who tells the judge he didn’t steal anyone’s wallet, and anyway there wasn’t much cash in it (and he can’t mend his ways because he has a gambling addiction).

Virginia voters will go to the polls on Tuesday to choose their party’s nominees for statewide office and the House of Delegates, so citizens are thinking about the issues that matter to them. The good news is that this year, climate may finally be one of them.

Pass the Coastal Protection Act to cut carbon, raise millions

With today’s start of the Virginia legislative session, a lot of energy and climate bills are pouring in–some good, some not so good, some downright terrible. I’ll have an overview of them coming soon, but meanwhile guest blogger Dawone Robinson gives us a look at one of the best of the bills, the Coastal Protection Act, HB 2205 (Villanueva). A shorter version of his post appeared as an oped in the January 12 edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Many thanks to Dawone for letting me run this. 

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A house in the process of being elevated, a very expensive solution to the problem of recurrent flooding due to sea level rise in Virginia. Photo credit: CCAN

A house in the process of being elevated, a very expensive solution to the problem of recurrent flooding due to sea level rise in Virginia. Photo credit: CCAN

Have you ever put together a list of items you would purchase if you won the lottery—before you remembered that you haven’t even purchased a ticket? Upon reflection, how premature was that list you so perfectly pieced together?

In Virginia, we face a similar dilemma when it comes to addressing the mounting crisis of flooding along our coast.

We’ve got plenty of laudable lists in the works. Last year, Virginia lawmakers unanimously passed a resolution establishing a joint subcommittee to study recurrent flooding issues and adopt recommendations. Legislators from both parties sent a unified message: flooding is a problem in Hampton Roads and we need to do something about it.

In 2008, former Governor Tim Kaine’s Climate Change Commission laid out more than 100 recommendations to mitigate and adapt to climate change and sea level rise. So far the state has failed to adopt a plan to execute them. To his credit, Governor Terry McAuliffe recently launched a similar commission. This panel, the state’s Secure Commonwealth Panel, and the General Assembly’s aforementioned recurrent flooding subcommittee all have the same mandate: convene, discuss, deliberate, and draft a set of recommendations.

So what’s the catch? While what needs to be done is relatively easy to identify, the cost is significant—if not staggering. Virginia needs to win the equivalent of a multi-hundred-million-dollar lottery every year to fund the adaptation measures required to protect coastal residents and infrastructure.

Hampton Roads is home to the world’s largest naval base, more than $80 billion in economic activity, and 1.7 million residents who routinely feel the effects of sea level rise. Streets need to be raised, levees need to be built, and homes and businesses need to be protected. The U.S. branch of the Dutch engineering firm Fugro estimated that it would cost the city of Norfolk at least $1 billion to fully adapt to rising seas and frequent flooding—which equals Norfolk’s entire annual government operating budget.

The non-profit group Wetlands Watch reports that the cost to either elevate or purchase the homes of residents in just five Hampton Roads localities that have sustained multiple flood losses of $1,000 or more in the last ten years would exceed $430 million. Relying on federal assistance alone, it could take up to 244 years to assist all homeowners seeking help in these five localities.

Meanwhile, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science warns that sea levels could rise by as much as seven feet along Virginia’s coast within this century. We can’t afford to keep creating unfunded wish lists, and we can’t wish the problems away.

Virginia needs a dedicated stream of state funding to help coastal families and localities fight climate change. Obviously, there’s no lottery for this. But thankfully there is a common-sense legislative approach being introduced in the Virginia General Assembly by Republican Virginia Beach Delegate Ron Villanueva. His bill, called the Virginia Coastal Protection Act, would help solve our massive coastal flooding problem with a first-ever state funding mechanism that is good for the economy and good for our communities.

By joining the state into the highly successful and fully established Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI, the bill would generate more than $200 million per year in new state funds to invest in coastal adaptation and other climate change solutions. This relief could come when localities in Hampton Roads need it most. It would come without adding any new demands to the state’s tight budget. It would also come through a system proven to rein in energy costs while reducing emissions and raising revenue.

RGGI is a cooperative effort of nine East Coast states that caps and reduces greenhouse gas pollution. Since the program’s inception in 2008, RGGI states have reduced their carbon footprint 2.7 times faster than non-RGGI states. In the same time period, electricity prices have dropped by 8 percent in participating states, compared to a 6 percent rise throughout the rest of the nation.

Under RGGI, power plants purchase allowances for every ton of carbon they emit. The sale of carbon allowances gets reinvested back to the states. Under Del. Villanueva’s bill, half of Virginia’s projected $200 million in annual auction revenues would fund coastal adaptation efforts, 35 percent would fund energy efficiency and renewable energy projects, and 10 percent would fund workforce development, education, and economic assistance in Southwest Virginia.

The Virginia Coastal Protection Act is a win-win-win solution. We can establish a consistent and significant source of revenue to tackle flooding in Hampton Roads and generate funds to invest in other statewide priorities, while putting policies in place to help Virginia meet carbon reduction goals in an efficient and practical manner.

Virginia’s lawmakers are on the record in their overwhelming bipartisan support for finding solutions to the state’s growing flooding woes. Delegate Villanueva has put forward the best plan to take us beyond wish lists, and to start funding urgently needed solutions.

Dawone Robinson is Virginia Policy Director with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, a regional climate-change policy and advocacy organization with more than 30,000 supporters in Virginia. You can reach him at dawone@chesapeakeclimate.org

UPDATE: State Senator Don McEachin (D-Richmond) has agreed to introduce the Coastal Protection Act into the Senate as a companion bill to Delegate Villanueva’s (SB 1428), making this now a bipartisan effort.